In and around Sunday River, snowmakers are revered. It’s one of the perks of the job, but it’s a hard-earned perk, says the resort’s snowmaking operations manager and energy manager, Drew Parent. “They step foot in any bar in Bethel, and they’re greeted like heroes,” he says.
Parent would know. He started working as an operator in Sunday River’s control room in 2012, running the snowmaking pumps and air compressors.
He quickly became snowmaking supervisor, managing the second shift (3-11 p.m.) before taking over as supervisor of the snowmaking maintenance and control room in 2014, and then taking on the added responsibility as energy manager in 2017.
It’s a lot to manage. Sunday River’s snowmaking capacity has doubled in the past two years alone thanks to massive upgrades, including nearly two miles of high-pressure pipe leading from the Sunday River, installation of a 600-horsepower pump and four 500-horsepower pumps, along with new HKD guns and KLIK hydrants to expand automation.
These upgrades allow snowmakers to push significantly more water into the system, which translates to significantly more snow on the mountain, which translates to significantly more smiles from skiers and riders.
When everything is humming as designed, it brings a smile to the face of Parent, too. The Rumford, Maine, native, who grew up in a nordic skiing family and didn’t make his first downhill turns until his teens, recently took some time to explain what it is about snowmaking that has such a grip on him.
New England Ski Journal: So … why snowmaking?
Drew Parent: I’ve been interested in snowmaking since I was a kid. There’s something satisfying about watching a resort turn white, a handful of trails at a time. As a skier, watching snowmakers operating guns and hiking equipment up and down trails drew me in further. They’re the hardest-working folks in some of the worst conditions. Now, from the inside looking out, I love preparing in the spring and summer for the fall push to get open as soon as temperatures allow. Summer is when all of our maintenance on our pumps, air compressors, valves, pipe, guns and hoses is completed. Early fall brings with it recruiting and filling in the roster, all while watching the weather forecast obsessively. Fall and winter is our time to shine. We make snow as early and often as possible. When it’s cold enough to run, we’re running.
NESJ: What is it that sets Sunday River’s snowmaking system apart from the rest?
Parent: One of the ways Sunday River is unique is that we have a nearly unlimited supply of water from the Mahoosuc Mountains that feeds the Sunday River. We pump water three miles from the Sunday River to our main pumphouse at Barker Mountain. We are able to pump 10,000 gallons of water per minute at over 1,000 PSI from 21 vertical pumps. We have one of the largest air plants in the industry, with nine centrifugal air compressors that produce 54,000 cubic feet per minute at 150 PSI.
NESJ: And on the mountain …
Parent: We have over 2,500 guns, 80 miles of high-pressure pipeline, and 2,200 hydrant stations. More importantly, we have the hardest-working and most dedicated snowmaking crew in the industry. We take pride in what we do. All this contributes to the most dependable snow in New England.
NESJ: How do you even begin to manage such a massive network and operation?
Parent: Managing an operation this size — when fully staffed we’re at 55 people — is based on preparation and teamwork. We all know what needs to be done, and how to do it. We stick to a solid, well-thought-out plan. Our snowmaking supervisors are natural leaders who hold their teams together and inspire confidence. We really lean on them and they continually rise to the occasion.
NESJ: Who were some of the people you leaned on when you were starting out in the industry?
Parent: My mentors are guys like Tom Rock, Bill Brown and Greg Warner. They’re the original Sunday River snowmakers who have taught me everything I know. They made Sunday River what it is today — a word-class resort known for having the most dependable snow in New England.
NESJ: Tell us about your snowmaking team, how they make it all happen.
Parent: Our snowmakers are the most dedicated and hard-working people I’ve ever worked with. We have six snowmaking supervisors who work full time year-round. They maintain the system in the offseason and support and lead our crew through challenging conditions throughout the winter. They’re the backbone of snowmaking. In the winter, snowmaking has 55 people between control room operators, snowmaking supervisors and the snowmakers. These snowmakers work 12-hour shifts and a minimum of 60 hours per week. From October to February they spend more time with each other than their own families. I admire their dedication and hard work. They take pride in what they do, and they do it with a smile.
NESJ: How do the shifts work?
Parent: We run two 12-hour shifts: 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. We work nights, weekends and all holidays. If it’s cold enough to make snow, we’re running the guns. Our work is very weather dependent, but when we don’t have snowmaking temperatures, we have plenty of maintenance and trail prep work to keep our crews busy. We’re always looking ahead to what’s next and how to get the mountain open as quickly as possible or respond after rain and thaw events. Speed is key. The faster we get the hill open, the better. We’re always pushing to increase efficiency.
Snowmakers generally work in two- to four-person teams. They are responsible for one to two trails per team. The guns on those trails are their responsibility to start, stop or maintain, depending what our daily snow plan meeting determines.
NESJ: What is a common misconception the public has about snowmaking?
Parent: The biggest misconception about snowmaking is that it’s a seasonal job. As soon as we shut the guns off in early spring, we start in on maintenance. A system this size takes a 10-person crew to maintain and prep for the next season. We not only maintain our snowmaking system, we plan and execute expansions and upgrades. We’re continually expanding our snowmaking terrain, upgrading our guns, and adding pumps and compressors to increase our capacity.
NESJ: If temperatures cooperate, are you running full bore?
Parent: Once we have sustained cold temperatures, our goal is to run at maximum capacity at all times — meaning all of our pumps are running. In a typical shift, I meet with the outgoing and incoming supervisors together to get updates on problem areas the previous shift encountered and brief the incoming shift on our plan. We generally are either maintaining what guns we have running, or shutting down one trail, while starting another.
NESJ: What keeps you awake at night?
Parent: In an operation this size, a lot can go wrong very quickly. Snowmaking is inherently dangerous. We do our best to mitigate all risk, but we deal with extremely high-pressure water and air, and the worst weather conditions imaginable. Power outages are a particular risk to equipment and the infrastructure. The majority of our snowmaking pipes are above ground. When the pumps lose power, the water stops moving. When water stops moving, it freezes, expands and bursts pipe. We then need to send our team onto the hill with snowcats and welders to repair thousands of feet of pipe in some pretty remote locations often in less-than-ideal weather conditions.